This chapter explores how the established framework of three durable solutions might be adjusted to respond better to the needs of today’s refugees. It begins by outlining the three traditional durable solutions, goes on to describe the importance of comprehensive strategies which include development and peacebuilding, and then considers how refugees themselves approach durable solutions. It concludes by suggesting policy directions to revitalize the search for solutions.

Afghan returnees building their houses near Jalalabad.

Afghan returnees building their houses near Jalalabad.

The ultimate aim of refugee protection is to secure lasting solutions to refugee problems. Lasting solutions may be achieved by returning to a home country (voluntary repatriation), by settling permanently in the country where the refugee has found protection (local integration), or by relocating to a third country which offers the refugee permanent residence (resettlement). A durable solution, by definition, removes the objective need for refugee status by allowing the refugee to acquire or reacquire the full protection of a state.

For many refugees, none of these solutions is available. By 2011, the number of refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility who remained trapped in protracted exile reached 7.2 million. International efforts to achieve solutions faced an impasse whereby countries of origin, host countries and donor nations were unable or unwilling to work together. These efforts were further complicated by a new emphasis from donors on finding solutions close to countries of origin, by increasingly complex refugee problems that defied easy solutions and by an increased interest in solutions for IDPs. For more than 60 years, UNHCR has worked to help governments find lasting solutions to refugee problems. In 2008, the High Commissioner launched an Initiative on Protracted Refugee Situations and used his annual Protection Dialogue to draw attention to the topic.

Established approaches

Voluntary repatriation

While the 1990s are dubbed the decade of repatriation, the overall numbers of refugees repatriating voluntarily declined sharply in the first decade of the 21st Century and reached a 20-year low in 2010. For many refugee populations, repatriation is not possible because of continuing conflict in their country of origin, localized violence persists, infrastructure and markets are damaged or destroyed, and livelihoods and access to basic services are limited. When conflict has involved inter-communal violence, it is often difficult to establish mechanisms for transitional justice and restore viable community relations, especially when disputes over land rights or reparations continue. UNHCR’s experiences in Afghanistan and South Sudan illustrate the difficulties of trying to solve refugee problems when political and governance crises endure. To be sustainable, voluntary repatriations require long-term engagement by many actors besides UNHCR in reintegration, reconciliation and reconstruction. Moreover, return patterns in Afghanistan, South Sudan and Bosnia-Herzegovina provide evidence of the extent to which refugees and IDPs continue to move after return. Many refugees return to urban areas or to new communities, or leave the country again.

Box 3.5 Afghans: still on the move

Returned IDPs in Sri Lanka have set up a small shop with the help of a UNHCR grant.

Returned IDPs in Sri Lanka have set up a small shop with the help of a UNHCR grant.

Local integration

Although states agreed to ‘work proactively’ on local integration in 2005, many host countries have continued to resist local integration for refugees, while donor countries have consistently encouraged such solutions. Host states are frequently reluctant to consider large-scale local settlement of refugee populations, and therefore implement encampment policies. In some contexts, host government officials may attach political or economic value to the continued presence of refugees and implicitly discourage them from taking up solutions even where these are available. Yet refugees often make important contributions to local communities, especially when given the opportunity to integrate; integration invariably occurs to some degree when refugees remain in their country of asylum for years on end, or when they are born there; and in some cases, refugees have been able to acquire the citizenship of their asylum country on an individual or even a group basis.


Resettlement serves as a vital protection tool for individual refugees in danger, but the number of resettlement places made available cannot make a significant contribution to durable solutions overall. In 2011, UNHCR estimated that 805,000 refugees were in need of third-country resettlement, yet only about 10 per cent of those places were available. In 2010, some 94 per cent of all resettled refugees went to just four countries: Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United States, which resettles more refugees than any other country. UNHCR has advocated for more countries to implement resettlement programmes, and their number has grown from 15 in 2005 to 24 in 2012. But the number of resettlement places remains limited. UNHCR and partners have therefore sought to use resettlement in a more strategic manner, maximizing the benefits of resettlement to other parties.

Box 3.3 Resettlement from Nepal: a strategic approach

Comprehensive strategies

On a number of occasions, UNHCR has tried to resolve protracted refugee situations by pursuing comprehensive strategies that involve all three durable solutions. For both local integration and voluntary repatriation, there is a widely accepted need to connect refugee solutions to broader peacebuilding and development efforts. Peacebuilding is a multidimensional process focused on restoring the rule of law and governance systems as well as the economy, infrastructure, and public services of states emerging from conflict and that risk lapsing back into war. Security and stability are preconditions for durable solutions. Local integration and voluntary repatriation also require the full engagement of development actors, so the establishment in 2010 by the World Bank of a ‘Global Programme on Forced Displacement,’ and the launch in 2010 of the Transitional Solutions Initiative (TSI) by UNHCR and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with the World Bank, were important steps. The TSI is aimed at integrating the needs of the refugees, returnees and IDPs into broader reconstruction and development planning, with UNHCR supporting education and training to enable refugees and returnees to become self-reliant and to contribute to their communities.

Somali refugee women producing bricks for construction of shelters in Dadaab camp (Kenya).

Somali refugee women producing bricks for construction of shelters in Dadaab camp (Kenya).

Both the 1951 Convention and the 1969 Organization of African Union (OAU) Refugee Convention allow for the cessation of refugee status when durable changes have taken place in the country of origin and the original causes of refugee flight no longer exist. Cessation of refugee status can also play a role in achieving durable solutions, serving as a catalyst to action.

Refugee perspectives

A persistent critique of efforts to find solutions for refugees is that the refugees themselves are insufficiently involved. The international community generally seeks solutions for an individual or a group, but refugees often make decisions at the family level. Refugees may therefore approach solutions that maintain flexibility, maximize security and bring economic gains for their whole family. The disjuncture between refugee approaches and international approaches to solutions can also lead refugees to resolutely await their preferred solution, or to circumvent official criteria.

When refugees are actively involved in the search for solutions, they often attach highest priority to mobility. Pre-conflict patterns of migration continue through conflicts, and contribute to meeting post-conflict needs and offering solutions. Remittances from family members abroad may be twice as efficient as aid in reaching intended recipients in some instances. Refugees and IDPs increasingly resort to ‘dormitory’ or ‘commuter’ displacement, living outside their community of origin but making regular visits home. Notwithstanding the global policy trend over the past decade towards restrictions on migration, refugees and returnees have often resorted to irregular migration in search of solutions. The durable solutions framework does not currently take account of refugee mobility, and international actors have approached solutions for refugees with a sedentary bias. UNHCR has stated that mobility can play an important role in achieving durable solutions for refugees, and has begun to explore the potential for migration channels to enhance refugee protection and access to solutions.

Congolese returnee women in the DRC receive agricultural training on land donated by the surrounding communities.

Congolese returnee women in the DRC receive agricultural training on land donated by the surrounding communities.

The way forward

Political will from states is needed to remove obstacles to durable solutions. Since 2006, solutions have been found for more than three million people in protracted situations, including South Sudanese, Burundians and refugees originating from Bhutan. However, many protracted refugee situations have not been resolved, and UNHCR has made resolving protracted displacement an institutional priority. In particular, achieving solutions requires states to respect the institution of asylum and refrain from premature and involuntary returns; to recognize the reality of local integration in some long-term displacement situations; to place refugee solutions squarely on the development agenda; to increase commitments to providing resettlement and making places available; to incorporate refugee mobility into the solutions framework; and to much more actively engage refugees in the search for solutions. This calls for international solidarity, cooperation and responsibility-sharing.